Sunday, October 16, 2011

RIP Dan Wheldon

The IZOD IndyCar Series lost a member of its team Oct. 16, 2011. Dan Wheldon, 33, died from the injuries he sustained in a large, 15-car crash just 12 laps in to the 2011 season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Wheldon was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, in 2005 and this season in 2011. He was the series Rookie of the Year in 2003, and he captured a series championship in 2005.

During Sunday's race, Wheldon started at the back of the bigger-than-normal field in the 34th spot. He had quickly moved up to the 24th position when the carnage-filled wreck occurred on the oval track. Wheldon's was one of the cars the went airborne and hit the catch fence above the SAFER barrier wall.

He was airlifted to the medical center where he later died. The race was red flagged immediately following the crash, and the drivers made the decision to run five laps in a tribute to Wheldon, rather than finish the race.

In a fact that, appropriately, didn't seem to matter, the championship for 2011 was won by Dario Franchitti. His competition for the award, Will Power, was involved in the crash. But there was no celebration. The tone of the day really hit home when ABC cameras caught Franchitti breaking down in tears while he was being strapped into his car for the tribute.

Following the coverage
I was in the middle of cleaning my apartment when I turned on the race, just a couple of laps before the crash. I turned on the television, sank back into my recliner and was set to watch the final laps of the season tick away.

But when the coverage cut to the 15-car crash, I bolted upright in the chair and uttered "oh my God." One of the first words that came to my mind was "carnage." Twitter has become a habit of multi-tasking during races for me, and part of my first Tweet after the crash read: "Whoa. Biggest carnage of the year."

I saw some drivers out of their cars, which is always a good sign. I also saw many safety team personnel rushing to attend to drivers in their cars, another good and familiar sign of the IndyCar Series.

From then until it was officially announced that Wheldon had passed away, I kept my eyes on the ABC coverage and on Twitter. Waiting for a word on Wheldon just gave me a bad feeling - seeing the helicopter blades fire up didn't help either. The whole thing reminded me of when Dale Earnhardt died; nothing was said until word came of his death.

Tragic memories
Another vivid memory that struck me was the death of CART driver Greg Moore on Oct. 31, 1999. That race was also the season finale, a race I remember watching at home as a 7th-grader. Moore's car hit one of the inside walls extremely hard and he sustained fatal head and internal injuries. I remember that no replay was shown of the crash, and commentator Paul Page's call of "An enormous crash! Oh my God."

Unfortunately, Wheldon's outcome was the same as Moore and other drivers. Guys like Paul Dana (2006), Tony Renna (2003) and Scott Brayton (1996).

Open-wheel racing has made some great strides in safety over the decades. Everything from improved helmets to the HANS device to the SAFER barriers which lessen impacts along the walls. And there are so many crashes that look horrific, destroying the race car, but the driver often walks away. It's so easy to forget that death is a possible, and very real, risk when drivers strap in.

It's certainly not something anyone involved with the sport, fans included, want to think about. Everyone will go into the offseason with this event weighing on them until the next race and especially at Indianapolis, where Dan won't be there to defend his Indy 500 crown.

Thoughts and prayers go out to Dan's family, his wife Susie, sons Sebastian (2 years) and Oliver (six months), and also to all of the other drivers and teams in IndyCar.

RIP Dan Wheldon.

Dan Wheldon takes a victory lap in the pace car after winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500. (Photo credit: Kyle Rule)